Carlos Canino cut his teeth as an undercover agent in Los Angeles, in an era when violent crime was hitting record highs.
It was the summer of 1991, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives had transferred Canino to the Los Angeles office. The city was nearing 1,000 reported homicides, many of them fueled by street gangs battling for control of lucrative drug turf.
Canino was detailed to a violent-crime task force, where he worked undercover with other ATF agents and Los Angeles Police Department officers targeting gang members in the Westlake and Pico-Union neighborhoods west of the downtown skyline.
After several years, he rotated out of Los Angeles to other assignments, including a stint in Mexico City in 2010, when the ATF was swept up in a gun-sting operation that tarnished the agency's reputation and sparked congressional inquiries.
Last month, the 49-year-old Canino returned as the special agent in charge of the ATF's Los Angeles field division, where more than 130 agents probe firearms violations and work with local and state agencies on criminal investigations in an area stretching from Central California to the Mexico border.
“Our goal is to have an impact on violent crime,” he said, “and find the worst of the worst and get them off the streets.”
A key priority, Canino said, is to work closely with the LAPD and other law enforcement agencies.
“Having Carlos back is a plus for all of us,” said LAPD Cmdr. Robert A. Lopez, a former gang homicide detective who worked with Canino in the 1990s.
Lopez credited Canino with helping break down mistrust between the two agencies and using federal gun-tracking resources to help crack several important cases.
“That was back in the day when everybody was reluctant to talk to each other,” Lopez said. “But we saw the benefits of having a partner like ATF.”
Born in Puerto Rico and raised in Massachusetts, Canino had been an ATF agent for little more than a year when he arrived in Los Angeles nearly 23 years ago.
He was assigned to the task force in the LAPD’s Rampart Division, where he infiltrated two of the city’s most violent street gangs: 18th Street and Mara Salvatrucha 13.
Canino and other task force members bought guns and drugs and used information from informants to build cases against gang members suspected of acting as enforcers.
“We would go after the trigger-pullers,” he said, and “target the most violent gangsters.”
In February 1992, Canino and an LAPD officer were in a car covering another undercover ATF agent near 9th and Mariposa streets when they were ambushed.
The suspected gang members chased Canino and his partner for more than a mile as gunfire was exchanged along the way. “It was a full-fledged gun battle between cars,” Canino recalled.
The incident ended, he said, after the suspects ran Canino and his partner off the road.
In 1997, Canino left Los Angeles and ended up in Miami and Puerto Rico, working undercover operations. He was promoted in 2005 to the resident agent in charge of the agency’s St. Louis field office, where he oversaw a unit that investigated gang members and white supremacists.
In 2009, Canino was transferred to Mexico City to be the agency’s deputy attache. He helped train Mexican law enforcement officers on tracing guns and conducting weapons-trafficking investigations.
He said he had built a solid working relationship with his Mexican counterparts. Then came news reports about the ill-fated Fast and Furious gun-trafficking program.
Under the sting program launched by ATF officials in Arizona in late 2009, legal straw purchasers were allowed to buy guns so smuggling routes into Mexico could be traced.
But the agency lost track of hundreds of weapons. A number of them were later recovered at crime scenes in Mexico, which infuriated Mexican law enforcement authorities who had been working with Canino.
According to federal records and congressional investigations, Canino and other U.S. officials in Mexico were initially left in the dark about the operation.
“We were never told that ATF in Phoenix was letting known gun traffickers buy guns and move them south of the border,” Canino said. “It was disappointing, to say the least.”
Canino ended up testifying before Congress, and he was moved out of Mexico after his photo was published by Mexican news organizations. “Every bad guy in Mexico knew who I was,” he said.
Canino said he has put the notorious operation behind him and is “extremely pleased and humbled to be working with ATF agents in L.A.”
Former ATF Asst. Director Richard Marianos said Canino is the right man for the job.
“He knows how to talk to everybody from lead federal prosecutors to the officers who are driving the beat cars at midnight,” said Marianos, who retired from the agency earlier this year. “He can work it at all levels.”